Palm oil is a key ingredient in everything from cereal, biscuits and margarine to shampoo, lipstick and toothpaste. Unless we curb our desire for it critical forests and wildlife habitat will be gone forever. Jim Wickens reports from Aceh, Indonesia
Everyday we read about the tragic death of another African elephant slaughter, the world watching in horror at the sight of desiccated carcasses, dried pools of blood and crudely-hewn stumps where tusks once were;snapshots from distant crime scenes feeding a ghoulish market for ivory in the Far East. The African ‘elephant wars’ make comfortable viewing for Western audiences who assume a moral superiority over the slaughter – a narrative where the rest of the world outside of Africa and China plays little role in the wildlife tragedy unfolding there on a daily basis.
There are around half a million African elephants currently left in the wild, but, by contrast, just 2500 Sumatran elephants remain today. It is – by far – the most endangered elephant in the world, but it is an animal whose fate is largely unreported to the outside world. Coincidence perhaps, or an uncomfortable truth? On my journey into the forested lands of Aceh in Sumatra, I’ve found that it is not poaching that is driving the Sumatran elephant to extinction, but palm oil expansion, and we are eating it, washing with it, and smearing it on our faces every single day.
Crouching low in the vines, I can smell the diesel fumes wafting up from the chainsaw that whines away just metres away from us. The sound stops, a brief pause followed by a towering crash as an ancient hardwood plummets through the canopy. This is the frontline in the struggle against palm oil, a shifting frontier that is eating away at the most biodiverse forest on the planet, and it’s a dangerous place to be. Whispering so as not to be heard, our guides urgently beckon us away. To be spotted could be lethal – loggers here are frequently armed, a melting pot mafia of community members, freedom fighters and army personnel whose rule is the law in these remote stretches of Aceh, the Northern most province of Sumatra. This rarely-visited corner of Indonesia is home to the last great forest habitats of the Sumatran elephant in the world. And it is being destroyed for palm oil.
For years, the land here has remained relatively untouched, with oil palm expansion and road-building spurned amidst a bitter civil war that reaped a bloody toll until a ceasefire gradually came into place after the tsunami in 2001. Because of this isolation, Aceh is the last real stronghold for healthy herds of critically endangered Sumatran elephants, who live alongside rhinos, tigers and orang-utans in significant numbers; a far cry from the isolated, genetically-starved herds further south, whose inter-connected territories have been cut off by palm oil companies and paper concessions into tiny, token national parks. But all this is beginning to change. With peace has come opportunity, and palm oil companies are rapidly moving into the Aceh lowlands, squeezing elephants out of ever-diminishing forests and into conflict with local people.
Communities returning home after the Aceh ceasefire have found themselves facing a new threat to their livelihoods; crop damage caused by roaming herds of elephants, opportunistically-eating their way through croplands and antagonising families already brought to their knees by decades of civil war. And the death toll on both sides of the species divide is rising every month.
Ransomed in frustration
Nicknamed Raja by the people who fed him, the baby elephant cuts a pitiful sight, straining for food at the end of a rusty padlock and chain. Caught in a plantation in Aceh Utara last month, the villagers said they were keeping him here by force. Government vets have tried to remove him, but they refused, demanding compensation for the damage that elephants do to their land first. Farmer Sabaruddin, showed us chewed up banana leaves, missing coco pods and a hut verging on collapse, all surrounded by tell-tale feet marks of thieving elephants, that he says are drastically impacting on the livelihoods of the community here.
‘The people are angry when the elephants destroy the fields, because it is not just one or two years waiting to harvest, but sometimes for many years. When we are about to harvest the elephants had already come and destroyed the field. We plant again and then just when it’s about time to harvest, it’s destroyed again’, he said. Deprived of full time veterinarian care, Raja died two weeks later at the end of his chain. He is not alone.
In Geumpang further North, a village chief took us up a winding lane to the sight of fresh mound of earth. It is all that remains of a young male elephant that was electrocuted by a low hanging cable over crops two nights earlier. It’s not the elephant’s death that worries him however, but the fate of his people.
‘There was a conflict here in which one of our people was killed because the elephant stepped on him when he tried to chase them away…Imagine, he has three children, now they don’t have any more education.’ ‘If we talk about the future of elephants, we have also to prioritise the importance on the future of the people. If the future of the people is good, then, the future of the elephants may also be better’ he warned.
For years the government response to crop-raiding elephants has been to capture and contain animals deemed as ‘problematic’. We visited Saree elephant camp, a government-run containment centre in Aceh, to observe conditions. Despite the best efforts of staff labouring under sparse resources, these holding centres are effectively prisons: barren sites where elephants deemed to be problematic are forcibly taken from the wild and subjected to a life of chained captivity, with no hope of release and little chance of enrichment to break the monotony. Dozens of elephants are living out a life of containment in these camps across Sumatra.
I watched in the dying heat of the day as mahouts barked instructions and scrubbed elephants kneeling to their every word, fearful perhaps of the sharp-pronged bull hooks tucked into the trousers of their masters. One elephant seemed psychologically scarred, repeatedly swinging its head back and forth as it gazed out over rusty barbed wire at life on the outside of the camp.
Elephant containment camps are cruel, say welfare campaigners, but the real tragedy for the elephants may not be so much that individual elephants are contained, but rather that these critically endangered animals have to be removed from the wild, and a rapidly-shrinking gene pool, in the first place.
The question, ask conservationists, is not how to keep wandering elephants away from communities croplands, but why these critically endangered herds are venturing out of their forest homes in the first place.
Mike Griffith’s is a leading conservationist in Sumatra and until early 2013, was the deputy director of the Aceh government department that was charged with forest protection.
‘We have a major problem and the only way to save the elephants, I believe, is to separate the elephants from the actions of man, that means oil palm, gardens and the impacts of roads and so on, that is why you have national parks, the is why you have reserves, that is why you have the Leuser ecosystem.’
A jagged line of towering peaks that run across much of Aceh, the Leuser ecosystem is the most biodiverse forest in S.E Asia, 2.2 million hectares of forested hills that stretch across Aceh and the only place on earth where orangutans, elephants, tigers and rhinos are found together in the wild. It is a cornucopia of biological richness and a sanctuary for hundreds of elephants who live amidst it’s hills and hidden valleys that are protected from development under Indonesian law. But it’s being eaten alive.
Working closely with local rangers from Aceh, we drove close to the Leuser frontier, keen to get a sense of this wildlife sanctuary famed around the world. Hours of driving through endless palm plantations brought us not to forests but to mud-stained hillsides clogged with debris and freshly torn tree roots.
Bulldozers had taken on where chainsaws had done their work, relentlessly bashing through logs and stumps to drive terraces into the hillsides. Navigating our way through the quagmire, we passed two motorbikes, wildlife traders waving cheerfully on their way to check bird traps that they had laid the night before on the newly-penetrated forest edge. Two howler monkeys clung to a tree stump, silent and motionless, overlooking a thousand hectares of devastation. The only green to be seen were tiny seedlings, their leaves fluttering quietly along the newly-cleared terraces. Oil palm.
It was a sight that left the team, the rangers even who deal with destruction on a weekly basis, speechless. A week earlier these rolling hills had been rainforest, home to many of the rarest large animals on the planet. ‘When you replace these forests with oil palm plantations, you create green deserts… Nothing lives there except cockroaches, mosquitos and rats.’ says Mike Griffiths.
In the silence we took in the destruction, a line of brown dotted by bulldozers, a silence broken only by the ceaseless whine of chainsaws eating their way deeper and deeper into the Leuser forest refuge. This expansion is a relentless onslaught taking place every day in Aceh and across Sumatra.
The sticky palm oil trail back to Britain
We eat it as vegetable oil, wash our clothes with it as detergent, we use it in cosmetics, we wash with it as shampoo and soap; soon we will even be burning it in our cars. There are over 30 names for palm oil derivatives, many used daily in the home. According to Leonie Nimmo from Ethical Consumer, companies use palm oil because it’s cheap and incredibly versatile. It is an industrial wonder ingredient which has rapidly been incorporated as an invisible fat and filler into dozens of products that permeate our every day lives.
Under pressure from campaigners, food companies have begun to refer to a plethora of terms which suggest the palm-derived ingredients within are ‘sustainably’ sourced, endorsed by the Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), an industry-dominated – and heavily criticised – certification body working on palm oil issues.
But this investigation has found that much of the palm oil sold under the guise of sustainability is actually sourced from palm plantations which may not even have passed the weak certification criteria. Two of the four certification methods operating under the RSPO remit allow food companies to use oil from uncertified plantations in food products that are allowed to be mixed or ‘offset’ from plantations that tick the right boxes elsewhere.
Confused? You are not alone. The RSPO is a mess, say campaigners, misleading consumers and allowing multinational brands and industry-backed NGOs who work within the RSPO process to paint little more than a green tinge over an inherently destructive industry.
‘It is criminal that consumer industries are able to hide behind this gross illusion of “sustainable” palm oil when its production is persistently fuelling the wholesale destruction of the world’s most vital forests,’ says Jo Cary-Elwes from the conservation organisation Elephant Family. Lowland habitats in Sumatra – the only areas where critically endangered elephants can survive in the wild, are the same sought-after areas exploited and planted over in palm oil.
Unless palm oil expansion is halted and reversed, conservationists say, it will be game over for the Sumatran elephant, which, alongside the rhino and tiger, teeters close to the brink of extinction. But you wouldn’t know that from palm oil labelling. When you buy organic tomatoes, you get organic tomatoes. When you buy free range eggs, you get free range eggs. But when you buy palm oil labelled as sustainable in some way there is a good chance that what you actually get is oil which has been produced from a plantation built over the habitat of some of the most endangered animals in the planet.
A resistance movement is born
Graham Usher is a man on a mission. We meet on the side of a muddy track high up in the midst of another freshly-planted palm concession that lies within the protected confines of the Leuser ecosystem. Crouching under a tent in the blistering midday heat alongside local rangers, he is busy putting the finishing touches to a an unmanned aerial vehicle, a drone, that he is using to map out fresh incursions into the forest. With a shout and the briefest of run-ups, the self-made drone is in the air and recording high-resolution footage that shows the scale of fresh cuts in the lush trees.
‘It’s a never ending job,’ he says. ‘It takes them half an hour to chop down a 400yr old tree, but if you want to guard it, it’s 24hrs a day, 7 days a week, 52 weeks of the year… the use of a drone is a game changer,’ he says. ‘This sort of work, this collection of evidence, provides us with a much stronger case when you go to decision makers and say, look, this is what is going on, these are your laws, why isn’t action being taken?’
Faced with dysfunctional governance and a spineless certification system, local communities in Aceh, fearful of floods caused by land clearance upstream, are fighting back. In 2012 over a thousand hectares of illegally grown palm oil was confiscated and chain-sawed down, the terraces bulldozed back into their natural shape. Within two months elephants had returned; within 2 years, orangutans, says Taesar, one of the rangers leading the regeneration project, ‘and we have over 5000 hectares more that we are trying to win back at the moment.’
It’s heartening to hear that the tide of forest clearance can be slowed, and even turned around, albeit it not by the multi-million dollar ‘responsible’ palm industry or conservation groups based in Europe and the USA who work so closely with the industry, but instead by grass-roots activism and local communities, many of whom are volunteers.
Despite these efforts however, at the moment they are fighting a losing battle. The Governor of Aceh recently issued a controversial ‘spatial’ plan for Aceh, a dryly-worded policy document concerned with reclassifying land use across Aceh. But the details within, say conservationists, are terrifying. The plan effectively green-lights environmental roll-back and decades of forest protection. It’s a carve-up of much of the remaining low-lying forest in Aceh, opening the way for mining and hundreds of thousands of hectares of further palm plantains”.
‘When you look at the needs of the Sumatran elephant, they need lowland forest to live in every time you disturb them, every time you put in plantations, you put in farming, you get conflict. Who is the loser out of that? It is always the elephant, they will disappear if we do not have large areas of lowland rainforest protected for them…’ says Graham. ‘If we don’t take urgent action a few year down the road we will be looking at the leuser ecosystems and saying my god, why didn’t we do more when we had the chance?’
In response to our request for a statement on the Spatial Plan, a spokesperson for the Indonesian government said the plan is a mess, stating that it is largely driven from political interests in Aceh itself. But he stressed that the authorities in Jakarta are trying to balance the needs of the environment with the livelihood needs of 250 million Indonesians.
Death by chocolate
On our last day in Aceh, the news came through that two more elephants have been found dead further south. Our cameraman flies through the night and arrives to record the grizzly scene. The images show two carcasses that seem to writhe amidst the shadows on the forest floor, an army of maggots feasting upon the flesh of the dead elephants that lie there. Elephants disappear quickly in the jungle. A convenience not lost on the oil palm plantation workers who are accused of frequently lacing chocolate bars with rat poison or phosphates, dropping them temptingly on elephant paths that meander close to valuable oil palm plantations.
The young male and female animals we filmed were one of three elephants poisoned in Sumatra last month, the latest casualties in the ever-growing elephant conflict.
Eclipsed in the media by the slaughter of African elephants for Asian ivory consumption, the fragile fate of the Sumatran elephant remains out of sight, hidden amidst the dark recesses of the rapidly disappearing forests that they call home.
It’s not poaching, but palm oil which remains the principle threat to the survival of the Sumatran elephant in the wild. Industrially-produced palm oil from Sumatra is a ‘liquid ivory’, and everybody reading this article inadvertently consumes it every day. Eating, bathing and washing ourselves in a fruit that has displaced forests in the last place on earth where the Sumatran elephant can survive.
Walking away from the chainsaw gangs in Leuser, our ranger turns and confronts me. ‘The world must see this destruction, the world must know what is happening now… see the destruction everywhere, we have to rise up and prevent all of these things from happening before it is too late. What people need to do, people from every part of the world need to think smart, think creatively and never to use any product that contains processed palm products. Palm oil destroys the forests’, he said. Time perhaps to heed his words.
Jim Wickens is an investigative journalist and producer with the Ecologist Film Unit